Originally Published 1978
A newspaper receives a letter from a man claiming to have been murdered–it’s impossible but the truth is not so simple; five strangers who share the same initials are invited to spend the night in a luxury hotel but one of them is a murderer.
The 12 stories in this book will lead you through dramatic twists and unexpected turns. The legendary Ellery Queen selected these stories by award-winning Japanese authors from among many thousands published in postwar Japan. Each story features an unusual crime and a complex set of clues investigated by a diverse and colorful cast of characters that includes a calculating inspector, a tenacious journalist, and a determined scientist.
Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen is a collection of twelve short stories selected by Frederic Dannay, one half of the writing team known as Ellery Queen. In the introduction to the volume he mentions how he was approached and asked to select stories from over 2000 that were submitted.
The stories selected showcase a variety of styles and approaches while several stories feature uniquely Japanese elements or ideas. For instance, several stories blend the supernatural with mystery elements while others incorporate “erotic” moments. Some evoke the feel of a traditional puzzle mystery while others would be better described as crime stories.
I was impressed by the general standard of the stories and even the weaker stories possessed some clear point of interest that explained their inclusion. For instance I found No Proof‘s inquest structure felt a little dry while its solution seemed to be flagged far too early but I really enjoyed the idea of someone being scared to death with a cheap gorilla mask.
Several of the stories are really entertaining and imaginative. My pick of the collection is The Kindly Blackmailer in which a barber finds that a new customer intends to blackmail him for his involvement in a hit-and-run. I spent a large part of the story feeling quite puzzled by the logic of the blackmailer’s plan but all of my concerns were addressed by the end of the story and I thought the situation was pretty compelling.
I also particularly enjoyed Devil of a Boy in which a mother suspects a child in her son’s class has sadistic tendencies – some of the developments in that story are really quite clever – while Invitation from the Sea and Cry from the Cliff feature the best puzzles in the collection.
Overall I found this to be excellent value and I appreciated the opportunity to experience some writers who were completely new to me. Individual reviews of each of the short stories follow after the cut. If the idea of this collection interests you I would encourage you to check out the review at The Reader is Warned as Dan’s views of some of these are quite different from mine though we both enjoyed the collection.
Also be sure to check out that post’s comments section where there is some interesting discussion of the genesis of this volume (and that there were several further volumes produced that were never translated into English).
Too Much About Too Many by Eitaro Ishizawa
In this story Police Inspector Kono investigates a death that occurs at an inn on Friday the 13th at an end of year party. The victim was the head of a company’s personnel department and he died of potassium cyanide poisoning, administered in a highball glass. There were thirteen witnesses, each of whom worked with the deceased and shared their secrets with him, and all of whom had the opportunity to administer the poison.
Too Much About Too Many is not an explosive start to the collection but it is a quietly effective tale. I found the premise for this story to be quite intriguing and enjoyed discovering more about the suspects’ motivations to commit the murder. I was satisfied with the explanation of what had happened if a little disappointed that Kono does not solve the crime through detection.
The Cooperative Defendant by Seicho Matsumoto
In this story a young man stands accused of clubbing an elderly moneylender to death and stealing his cashbox. He initially confesses during an interview with the police but later retracts his confession, insisting it was given under coercion.
I was excited when I saw Seicho Matsumoto’s name in the list of contributors for this collection as I previously read and enjoyed his novel A Quiet Place. The Cooperative Defendant is perhaps not quite as memorable but I do think it has an interesting idea and a clever solution, even if I am not entirely convinced about the explanation given for how the killer came up with their plan.
A Letter from the Dead by Tohru Miyoshi
A newspaper journalist looking for a story to launch his career is given a letter from a man who says he has been murdered. He follows up on the letter and speaks to the man’s widow who identifies the letter as being in his handwriting and tells him that it is dated several weeks after his death.
I thought that this was a promising hook for a story but I don’t think that potential is fully realized. Its depiction of the Japanese business culture and finance markets at the time added some interest for me but the mystery didn’t grab my imagination or surprise me the way I had hoped and I found the solution fairly predictable.
Devil of a Boy by Seiichi Morimura
A mother becomes concerned about the behavior of one of her son’s classmates after she observes him goading another student into running into traffic on a dare. We learn about some previous examples of his seemingly sadistic behavior targeted at students he perceives to have wronged him in some way but no one can prove that he is responsible.
Let’s be clear – the ending of this story feels quite predictable but I really enjoyed the process of getting there. The characters are some of the most striking in the collection and I think the idea is really pretty clever and original.
Cry from the Cliff by Shizuko Natsuki
A man meets the wife of an old schoolmate who had become a sculptor. She tells him how he has been depressed since he damaged his eyesight in an accident and asks if he will visit him to try and cheer him up. When he arrives he feels awkward, particularly when he notices that the wife slips out of the house after dinner to meet with a man…
I enjoyed this story which I think does a good job of building suspense as we wait for the situation to turn murderous. The twist is quite clever and while I think the solution will not wow readers, I enjoyed unpicking the sequence of events.
The Kindly Blackmailer by Kyotaro Nishimura
A new customer comes in to a barber’s shop for a shave and proceeds to disclose that he witnessed the barber hitting and killing a young child in a hit-and-run. He asks for a sum of money, writes a receipt as if it were a loan, and leaves only to return a few days later for another shave with a bigger demand…
I found this to be one of the standout stories in the collection. The premise is simple but effective. At points I worried that the writer was overlooking an obvious remedy to the barber’s problem but that was addressed by the end of the story and the title which doesn’t seem to fit the action is also explained.
No Proof by Yoh Sano
A group of Police Superintendents discuss two strange deaths that involved a man who put on a monkey mask to scare people. The author proposes three possible readings of the situation and then provides more information that puts events in a different perspective.
Unfortunately while the goofy cause of death is memorable, the delivery of this story is not. The story is slow and dry while it also lacks action with most of the information provided by officers summarizing what they have already learned rather than trying something new. The biggest problem though is that the solution is flagged very clearly early in the story and we have to wait for the officers to catch up.
Invitation from the Sea by Saho Sasazawa
A journalist receives an invitation to spend a night at a prestigious hotel from “the Sea” along with twenty-thousand yen for travel expenses. Feeling a sense of obligation because he is unable to return the money and a little curiosity about the sender he arrives to find several other men and women who have received similar invitations.
I found this scenario to be quite intriguing and I enjoyed following the journalist’s process by which he works out what linked everyone in the room. There are some elements of the conclusion which may feel a little predictable but I think they are executed pretty well.
Facial Restoration by Tadao Sohno
A skull is found and a forensic pathologist is tasked with making a facial restoration to help identify the victim. He initially makes strong progress but his efforts stall when he is about two-thirds done as he cannot decide how to proceed. Shortly afterwards a woman visits who comes to check on his progress and to observe the facial reconstruction process.
Let’s start with what I liked: I appreciate that this collection does incorporate some stories that blend the supernatural with mystery and detective story structures. I also appreciated the discussion of the process of facial reconstruction and felt that I learned something from it.
The problem for me comes in the final section of the story in which we move beyond a supernatural explanation for an event and are presented with a rational explanation. That explanation requires a belief in an enormous level of coincidence that I found hard to accept and a character’s behavior simply did not make sense to me on a psychological level. It just didn’t work for me though I appreciated what the author was attempting to do here.
The Vampire by Masako Togawa
Jiro lives in a dormitory with a group of people with different blood types. Occasionally he is called in to see the vampire who takes some of his blood which he has been told is particularly rare.
This story was my reason for purchasing this collection as I have previously read and really enjoyed two novels by Masako Togawa (The Master Key and The Lady Killer). This isn’t as successful as either of those works but I think it still has some points of interest that make it worth reading.
I think this story has some clever ideas and is certainly original but it may diverge a little too much from typical mystery story structures for some readers. As with the previous story this mixes the supernatural with some traditional mystery elements but the difference is that Jiro does not attempt to solve what is going on. The reader can however and follow as the piece builds slowly to its inevitable, grim conclusion.
Write In, Rub Out by Takao Tsuchiya
This story is narrated by a man whose wife committed suicide. Her sister comes to him to ask questions about the note which she thinks cannot be complete and also to find out more about why she killed herself.
I have mixed feelings about this story. I was interested in discovering the truth of the suicide note and felt that the idea was simple and effective. But then the story takes a turn that seemed a little off leading to an ending that left me feeling unsatisfied.
Perfectly Lovely Ladies by Yasutaka Tsutsui
Eight married women meet in a coffee shop. They all complain about the cost of living on their husband’s meagre salaries and with inflation before setting out to make some money to help stretch their housekeeping budgets.
The last story in the collection is definitely a crime story rather than a detective story and it tries to be punchy and shocking. I think it largely works though it depends a lot on shock value based on the reader’s expectations and once you see where this is headed it loses a little of its impact.
5 thoughts on “Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen, edited by Frederic Dannay”
I’m torn — I have this collection, but it sounds less and less like my kind of thing. But, well, some wonderful work has been done in this era from this provenance and so…do I risk it? I think I might bump it down a little, even if I am curious to read something by some of the authors in here (especially Matsumoto and Nishimura). At this stage of the year, I’m unwilling to take too many risks, but I might get to it in the summer sometime.
I understand completely. I might suggest dipping into it on the individual story level and avoiding the last third of the collection since you own it already. I would guess you are most likely to enjoy Cry from the Cliff and Invitation from the Sea.